I am reviewing this book as part of the Lit World Interviews review team and was offered a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Nyla, the protagonist of this novel-cum-memoir (the author is also called Nyla and in the description of the book she explains the narration is born of her personal experience working for a bank, which although it remains nameless, it’s ‘the Most Successful Bank in the Universe’) works for the department preparing the publications that seemingly are the only visible output the bank produces. These always show predictions of growth for their clients, although as she discovers, such predictions are based on no real data. It’s a con but it must look good.
We only know the basics about the protagonist, who is an anthropology graduate and after years of trying to make a living out of her vocation is close to destitution (in fact at the beginning of the novel, when she’s going to undertake the selection test to get the job that will occupy the rest of the book, she only has £3 in her pocket). We know she lives in a bedsit, but nothing about her personal life, family or relationships. She talks about her love of studying, books, Philosophy, and the first person narration puts the reader inside her head, and we suffer with her the claustrophobia, the harassment, the bullying, and the minor joys (very minimal) she experiences. It does not make for easy reading, let me tell you.
Nyla is very insightful, both about the world and society around her (and she offers great anthropological, sociological and political insights, including how this bank’s behaviour towards his employees is only different in style rather to historical fascist regimes, even if they prefer to see it as social Darwinism) and about herself. She observes others, she tries to study ways of surviving (she’s doing it for the money, she keeps telling herself, to try and get to ‘a better place’), and she knows she is no better than others. Her comments about becoming the witch bitch reminded me of an article I read years back by Barbara Creed about Alien and what she called ‘the monstrous feminine’. Oh yes, she can be scary, but she’s strong.
There are lighter moments, like her songs dedicated to the sweets machine (and although she doesn’t name them, we know them) but these get swallowed up by the soul-destroying routine of working at the bank.
The bank (and the author’s descriptions of the place and the situation brought to my mind not only Kafka and Orwell but also the movie Brazil) is next door to an old graveyard where the protagonist spends some of her waiting time and this London graveyard is the perfect backdrop to the action and a mirror image of the institution, only the graveyard doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t (and seems more welcoming). Like the air conditioning system, filled with nobody knows what, and a nest of corruption and sickness, the whole empire seems to be a bomb ticking. Like Nyla, who fantasises about being sacked, but worries about how she’d manage, we want to see the place collapse but don’t want Nyla to go under. The ending of this first book in the series is a cliffhanger for what might come when Monsters Arise.
This is a fascinating book, a very subjective experience for the reader, but not a novel with a plot full of action. We get to know the inside of the character’s mind but not her life. I don’t think it’s a book for everybody but it’s a scary look into a world some might have suspected existed, but not quite like this. If you want to know more about investment banking from a totally unique perspective, and you dare, go for it.